Q&A w/ Isaiah Owens of Free Moral Agents

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Isaiah "Ikey" Owens is better know these days as the keyboardist of the Mars Volta. His versatile and creative musicianship, though, was honed in the '90s when he played with Sublime and later Long Beach Dub Allstars. Ikey first played with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala in the dub project De Facto before being invited to join the Mars Volta as a live keyboard player once Omar and Cedric's notable previous band, At the Drive-In, dissolved. Throughout the past decade, Ikey has been in demand as a session player and collaborator and his work has been featured on albums by a wide range of artists including Saul Williams, Mastodon and the Aquabats. Ikey's musically omnivorous approach to playing and composition can be heard in the evocative and often haunting strains of Free Moral Agents. Something of a combination of experimental pop, ambient and trip hop, Free Moral Agents, while a collaborative effort, benefits from Ikey's direct creative involvement. We had a chance to talk with Ikey about the band, his development as an artist, the role of women in his music and an unexpected Denver connection.

Westword: Why did you call this project Free Moral Agents?

Isaiah "Ikey" Owens: That's something I've always been interested. Free moral agency, everybody has free will. For me, as someone who works with a lot of other artists, as a weird mixture of being a band member and a sideman, so since this is my project, I have free will.

WW: In that Modern Fix interview you mentioned you needed a female element in the group. Why do you feel that's true?

IO: It's the opposite of being in a band playing heavy rock, like being in Mars Volta full-time. When I decided to get a vocalist, going away from that with a female vocalists. Pretty much all my favorite vocalists are female anyway. Some of my favorites are Rose [Sylvester] from Sly & The Family Stone, Billie Holiday, Deborah Harry, Beth Gibbons from Portishead. And Mendee [Ichikawa] is one of my oldest friends. The Mars Volta was the first band that I had been in in a long time that actually didn't have a girl in it so it was kind of a return to what I was used to.

WW: The titles of your albums are interesting, poetic and suggestive. Can you tell me about the significance of some of those titles? (Momma's Gun Club Vol. 1, Looking for Lauryn Hill in Lakewood and The Honey in the Carcass of the Lion)

IO: Momma's Gun Club was just a play on an Erykah Badu record, Mama's Gun. Looking for Lauryn Hill in Lakewood is the title of a song. I auditioned for Lauryn Hill and I flew to her house. She asked me to be her band director. That song was written right afterward. It was such a weird, off the cuff thing and I just made up the title. And there was a rumor that she had moved to a town I grew up in called Lakewood. The Honey in the Carcass of the Lion is taken from the Bible [Judges, 14:8-9]. It was a weird name and the story about Samson was also strange, finding something he's not supposed to and it's supposedly put there by God for him and connects with the whole free will theme.

WW: How did you end up being the keyboardist in the Mars Volta and, other than writing the music, what do you see as your role in Free Moral Agents as compared with your role in Mars Volta?

IO: I ended up in the Mars Volta because Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez] and Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] moved six blocks away from me. We had a mutual friend and they had a band called De Facto while At the Drive-In was still going and I joined De Facto. When At the Drive-In broke up, I moved over to the Mars Volta. Basically, in The Mars Volta, my role is as a live keyboard player. I have little to nothing to do with the records at all.

In this band I produce, I write, I drive the van, I load the gear-it's pretty much a night and day difference. Which is good. I go there and I can relax and not do much except go play keyboards. In this project, I really enjoy the process of putting everything together and working with the people in the band. I really enjoy working with people and in this band that gets to happen. In the Mars Volta there's not a lot of creative interaction. But it's good to have both outlets as a musician.

WW: How involved are you in the band Crystal Antlers and will you be joining them on this next tour?

IO: I produced the first Crystal Antlers EP for Touch and Go. I saw them play down the street one night and they blew me away. A friend mine played in the band and I ended up joining the band for about ten shows until they found a permanent keyboard player. I really wanted to produce them but I had so much respect for them I didn't want to step up and say, "Yo, I wanna produce you guys." You know, I didn't want to seem like some jerk from a big band. As we developed a relationship, I ended up producing the latest record. I'm not touring live with them but we're talking about working together in the future on some other recording. It was awesome to be able to see a band play your hometown where I had put part of my own money down for and see the world receive it so well was a good feeling.

WW: How would you describe the music of Free Moral Agents to someone who has never heard it?

IO: What I was going for was a combination of Portishead and elements of Sonic Youth and Flaming Lips. Along the way we picked up Afro-Beat influences. I love reggae and I love dub so I'll weave that in. It's kind of an experimental pop band.

WW: I read that you were once in the band Sublime. Can you tell me how you got hooked up with those guys and what you learned from that experience?

IO: I played on a Sublime record and I would go and rehearse with them when I was young. They were my favorite band. I grew up in Long Beach and would go see them at backyard parties. Then after Brad [Nowell] died, they formed Long Beach Dub Allstars and I played in that band for the first two years. I was really young and I got to learn from my biggest heroes. A lot of my philosophy in production came out of that. That strong reggae foundation and vocal being fundamental I learned from Marshall Goodman and Miguel [Happholdt]. Maybe a lot of people don't hear that in this band but the way they produced their music in having pop songs and the dub aspect-just how to record everything, I soaked up a lot of what they had to teach me.

WW: You use an impressive array of keyboards in performance and recording. What attracted you to playing keyboards and what would you recommend to someone who wants to learn to play them?

IO: Keyboards were the easiest things to translate from my classical music background. I played horns-low brass, tuba and trombone. When I wanted to play rock music, it was the easiest to translate the theory I knew on to a keyboard and have it make sense. Once I started doing that, there were so few keyboardists, I never really learned to play anything else. Once I got good enough to be in a band I just stayed super busy.

As far as people wanting to learn to play, I'd just say learn to play your favorite records. I would put on records like Fishbone, Tom Petty, Jimi Hendrix. I just tried to play as many different kinds of music as possible and later I got into Herbie Hancock, which was a little more challenge. Just listen to all the music you can and play along, that's all I did.

WW: You're friends with Denver hip-hop artist Braden Smith. How did you meet him and have you collaborated with him or do you plan to?

IO: I met Braden because I was routing a potential tour for this hip-hop project I have called Look Daggers. 2Mex knew Braden and he knew that Braden knew the Denver area and that whole circuit really well and said he was a really good artist and he was the opening artist for that show. I'm always looking to collaborate so hopefully in the future I'll get a chance to work with Braden.

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